Sunday, June 30, 2013

Greenwald Derangement Syndrome

I just read an article by Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine that was so silly and self-indulgent I wasn't going to comment on it.  What's the point of comparing Greenwald to Ralph Nader (or to anyone else, really)?  What's the point of discussing Greenwald at all, compared to the importance of his reporting?  Can you really try to castigate Greenwald for arguing that in various ways Obama is worse than Bush, when so many Constitutional law experts are arguing that indeed, Obama is worse than Nixon?  Is Chait ignorant of the mountain of evidence behind this argument, or of the other people making it?  Why does he refer to but fail to address the actual evidence in the supporting piece he links to, instead treating the argument itself as ipso facto evidence of sanctimony?  What does it mean that liberals might break with Greenwald because he believes "even if Obama is the lesser of two evils, he’s the more effective of two evils" (oh no, the cool kids will stop inviting him to play dates... and is this more a reflection on Greenwald, or on liberals)?  And most glaring of all, did Chait really complain that "For Greenwald... the evils of liberals loom far larger than the evils of conservatives," when he's talking about a guy who's written no fewer than three books (and God knows how many blog posts) on the failings of conservatives -- with titles like How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values from a President [Bush] Run Amok; and A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency; and Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican Politics?

My initial reaction was just to shake my head at how someone could put his name on something so sloppily argued, and to briefly wonder why anyone would publish it.  But then, as sometimes happens when I've rolled my eyes and am about to click on a (hopefully) better link, something struck me that I thought was worth calling out.

That something is a remarkable case of psychological projection -- the "defense mechanism in which a person unconsciously rejects his or her own unacceptable attributes by ascribing them to objects or persons in the outside world."  In an odd cri de coeur, Chait declares:

I won't pretend to be neutral here -- I've tangled with Greenwald numerous times.  So, for instance, he called me a "McCain worshiper," and it is true that I have written some highly favorable things about John McCain.  I've also written some highly critical things.  I pointed out to Greenwald that, when I have called McCain, among other things, a "dangerous sociopath," it would at least complicate the picture in such a way as to preclude me from being called a "worshiper."  But no, Greenwald dug in deeper, assembling all the evidence he could muster for his side and ignoring all the evidence pointing in the opposite direction.

I'm glad Chait thought to include that paragraph.  If he hadn't, I would have wondered what had caused him to write such a bizarre and illogical piece.  Now I get it -- at some point, Greenwald hurt his feelings.  But what most fascinates me about the paragraph in question is that Chait included it in the very piece in which he accused Greenwald of focusing more on the evils of liberals than of conservatives -- without even pausing to explain, or even acknowledge, all those books (and posts) of Greenwald's that would seem pretty clearly not just to mitigate the claim, but to outright belie it.

This is pretty weird behavior.  How could it happen?  I don't know Chait, but I doubt he could be that unintelligent.  Or that uninformed.  So I think what happened instead is that he's so blinded by personal animus he wasn't able to see the evidence completely neutering what he was trying to argue.  Even more interesting is that the blindness is profound enough to prevent him from seeing that he is doing the very same thing -- cherry-picking to make an argument -- that he accuses Greenwald of doing to him, and that he apparently found so hurtful when it happened.

I want to add in Chait's defense that in my experience, one of the animating themes of all Greenwald's writing is a loathing of hypocrisy.  So it stands to reason that Greenwald might find a little extra ire for "liberals" who opposed Bush's authoritarian programs but are now excusing and justifying the same or worse as perpetrated by Obama.  As in, when Dick Cheney argues that unaccountable surveillance is good, at least he's being consistent.  When liberals who were against such things before make Chenyesque arguments now that Obama is in the White House, something else seems to be going on, and deeply held principle isn't it.  So yes, Greenwald does have a tendency to point out -- correctly and usefully -- liberal hypocrisy on these issues.  But is this really what Chait means with his notion that "the evils of liberals loom far larger" for Greenwald?  Pointing out glaring hypocrisy seems a pretty slim reed on which to hang such a charge (and again, look at the title of one of those books --  Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican Politics!  Greenwald seems evenhanded even with his charges of hypocrisy).

That's about as charitable an explanation as I can come up with for the shortcomings in Chait's article.  Maybe he can offer something better.

The reason the projection, and the sloppiness and cherry-picking to which the projection blinds Chait, is significant is because of what's behind it.  Look, arguments on the Internet can get pretty rough sometimes, and people's feelings can get hurt.  But it's important for everyone, and especially for journalists, to try to set those feelings aside and be as dispassionate and principled as possible.  It's hard for me to imagine that anyone reasonably dispassionate about Greenwald would be more focused on him than on the massive, illegal NSA spying operation he's recently been breaking so much news on.  How could a journalist worth a damn care more about the former than about the latter?  Only if he were unhealthily personally engaged, I would imagine.  Chait seems to sense as much, opening his article by saying, "The debate over domestic surveillance is not a debate about what we think about Glenn Greenwald.  But…"  Yes, but!  Because then Chait goes on to write an entire article that consists of nothing but his feelings about Greenwald.  If only that tiny voice of reason he was hearing could have spoken up a little louder.  Or if Chait's ears weren't too stopped up to hear it.

I have to add, I loved that "we," too.  Back in the day in Japan, the Emperor, after a particularly fulfilling meal, would lean back and proclaim, "Yo wa manzoku ja" -- literally, "The world is satisfied."  Because, if the Emperor is contented, that means all must be well throughout the entire world.  I'm always reminded of this species of royal neurosis when I encounter the Jonathan Chaits of the world, losing sight of where their preferences and feelings end and those of the rest of the world begin.

If Chait were the only one whose priorities and judgment were being distorted by personal antipathy for Greenwald, it would hardly be worth noting.  But I've now seen this kind of thing from (in no particular order of importance) David Gregory, Joy Reid, Andrew Ross Sorkin, Edward Epstein, Alan "Torture Warrants" Dershowitz, and many others.  Irrelevant questions; questions about things that have already been repeatedly asked and answered and are easily findable with a rudimentary Google search; a focus on bullshit and gossip instead of a discussion about how the government has been illegally spying on the American people.  It's enough to make me wonder whether there might be a Greenwald Derangement Syndrome at work.  If so, it seems pretty virulent:  it causes journalists (and others) to experience swollen egos and shrunken reason; to place the personal above the professional and the petty above the profound; and most insidiously of all, to become blind to the very behaviors that should alert them they've taken ill.  It's a little late for GDS to make it into the new DSM V, but maybe it'll get an entry in Wikipedia.  Certainly there are enough people who are showing symptoms.

What a shame.  Journalists like Chait who let their feelings get the better of them aren't just embarrassing themselves.  They're also doing a disservice to their readers.  It would be great if they could take a deep breath, recite a brief mantra of, "It doesn't matter how I personally feel about Greenwald, I'm bigger than that," and carry on as professionals.

Here's hoping.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Alec Baldwin: Dudgeon is Easy; Understanding, Hard

I think I'm a little late to the Alec Baldwin two-minutes hate, but hopefully not too late to suggest a slightly different perspective.

Apparently, what happened is that Baldwin got enraged by a guy named George Stark, who Baldwin believes is gay (I've never heard of Stark and have no idea one way or the other).  So Baldwin tweeted, among other things, "I'd put my foot up your fucking ass, George Stark, but I'm sure you'd dig it too much … I’m gonna find you, George Stark, you toxic little queen, and I'm gonna fuck…you…up."

From this, various people are accusing Baldwin of homophobia.  Which certainly could be one explanation, but I also gather that Baldwin has done a lot to promote gay equality.  How likely is it that someone who promotes equal rights for gays is homophobic?  Those two things aren't easy to reconcile.  So can I propose another explanation?

I don't think it's so hard to imagine that someone could have no animus toward gays in general while simultaneously, for whatever reason, wanting badly to hurt one person in particular who happens to be gay.  It's been my experience (firsthand and observation) that when someone is gripped by rage, his overriding motive is to hurt the person he's enraged at.  If the only way he can hurt that person is with words, he'll use the words he believes will be most hurtful.  So my guess (and obviously, I'm not psychic so I can't really know) is that Baldwin has no animus toward gays in general, but in the instant in which he desperately wanted to hurt someone who happens to be gay, Baldwin chose the words his enraged mind instinctively sensed would be the most likely to cause hurt.

The thing about rage is, it's a quite primitive state (one reason it's a state better to avoid if you can).  When we're in a primitive state, we do primitive things, including resorting to slurs.  If Baldwin didn't know Stark is gay, presumably he would have chosen some other phrase intended to cause maximal hurt.  If Stark had a skin condition, Baldwin might have called him pizza-face.  If he wore glasses, maybe Baldwin would have gone with four-eyes.  If Stark were overweight, Baldwin could have resorted to fatso.  If Stark were short, I can imagine Baldwin calling him shortie.  Or whatever.  Yet I doubt in these hypotheticals anyone would accuse Baldwin of hating people with acne, or who wear eyeglasses, or who are overweight, or who are short, etc.  Instead, we'd recognize the insults for what they would be:  crude attempts to verbally wound a specific person as badly as possible.

To put it another way:  what's more likely, that Baldwin, who has a history of using his celebrity to promote gay equality, secretly hates gays?  Or that in a moment of pure rage (justified or not, that's not really the point), Baldwin just reached for the words he thought could most hurt the target of his rage?

It's pretty obvious to me the second explanation is the more likely.  And I think the reason people are overlooking it is that it feels better to denounce than it does to try to explain.  Denouncing does feel good, after all -- by creating a clear separation between what the person you're denouncing has done and what you yourself would ever do, it implies moral and character superiority; it often puts you in the company of a mob, which can feel empowering; and it requires no honest reflection or soul-searching.  Whereas my explanation, though I think it does make more sense, offers none of these emotional advantages.

Now, even though I know it should go without saying, I realize I should add that I think Baldwin's words were appalling, especially the part where he calls on his million-plus Twitter followers "and beyond to straighten out this fucking little bitch."  And his apologies are, in my opinion, extremely lame.  But it doesn't necessarily follow from any of that that what was behind his outburst was homophobia, and I don't think it's helpful, in terms of raising consciousness or otherwise, to reflexively misdiagnosis the cause of bad behavior.  Remember, explaining something is not the same thing as justifying it.  And even though I've added this paragraph to explicitly remind people that, in trying to more accurately understand and explain Baldwin's motivations, I am in no way condoning his behavior, I guarantee you some people are going to accuse me justifying what Baldwin did.  Welcome to the Internet, where dudgeon dies hard.

The fact that an individual bears no animus to a minority group -- gays, Jews, blacks, women, Asians, whoever -- probably doesn't prevent the individual from realizing that being part of a minority group can make a person the target of some of the most vicious insults possible.  Remember when Michael Richards, formerly of Kramer, called a heckler a nigger?  The same explanations were immediately trotted out:  Richards had outed himself as a racist!  Maybe that was it -- again, I'm not psychic.  But it seems more likely to me that what was really going on in that instant was blind rage against an individual and a desperate need to hurt that individual.  Trying to hurt another person as badly as possible with words is, by my standards, shameful behavior.  But it's not necessarily the product of racism, homophobia, or misogyny, either.

I could offer other examples.  A good friend of mine who I know has nothing but respect for women once lashed out in misogynist terms against a woman who had offended him.  And to my great shame, I once found myself engaging in similar behavior with a member of a minority group who had scammed me.  I tried to learn from that personal incident, and what it revealed to me wasn't that I'm a closet racist, but that I was capable of saying the ugliest things possible in a moment of rage.  What shamed me was not discovering that I'm a secret racist, but that I could lose my temper, my self-possession, and my perspective like that, and want to hurt someone else so viciously, over something so petty.

If people were primarily interested in educating Alec Baldwin rather than in reeducating him, I think they might focus on something similar.

P.S.  Not long ago, I read a terrific book called Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion, by George Thompson.  Its teachings are simple and profound, and will doubtless take a lot of practice for me to follow.  But I think the effort will be worth it.  I recommend it to Baldwin and anyone else who's ever said something horribly cruel in a moment of rage and wished afterward the words could be retracted.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Fetishizing Secrecy

Have you noticed recently that America has developed something of a secrecy fetish?

I'm not talking about the government specifically -- secrecy at the expense of the citizenry creates a massive power asymmetry, and it's natural therefore that any reasonably unscrupulous politician or bureaucrat (meaning almost all of them) would want to keep things secret from the people.  Metastasized secrecy within American's national security state is neither new nor unknown to me.  What I'm talking about instead is a secrecy fetish among we, the people.

I started thinking about this earlier this month, when Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the NSA's illegal domestic spying operation.  I was struck by how many people describing something that's not much more than a bulked-up non disclosure agreement spoke of some sacred secrecy "oath."  The meme has really taken hold -- Director of Central Intelligence John Brennan is now explicitly demanding that CIA employees "Honor The Oath," thereby implying that a secrecy agreement is of significance equal to a CIA employee's (actual) oath to protect and defend the Constitution.  Doubtless many journalists will uncritically regurgitate Brennan's terminology, never pausing to consider whether there even is such a secrecy "oath," or whether it should be treated as remotely important as an oath to protect and defend the Constitution.

And then I read about Obama's Insider Threat Program, his policy for getting all government employees to inform on each other and equating all leaks with aiding and abetting enemies.  Here, see for yourself how insane and Stazi-like this initiative really is.  It almost reads like a parody.  But it isn't.  It's the behavior of a paranoid government that has become psychologically obsessed with the value of the secrets it hoards.  And what's at least as disturbing as the program itself is how little attention it's gotten in the press or among the public.  Again, too many Americans have come to accept that massive secrecy isn't just normal, but in fact desirable.

It isn't.  Secrecy is not one of the primary pillars of the strength of a democracy.  Fetishizing the importance of secrecy at the expense of a focus on the Constitution, the rule of law, and transparency is like thinking your overall health is determined more by how much coffee you can consume than it is by food, water, and exercise.

Secrecy is fundamentally antithetical to democracy and should be treated with great suspicion.  Small amounts are a necessary evil.  Beyond that, it is poison.  And we have become addicted to it.  Our addiction has made us lose sight of what really makes us strong:  the Constitution; and just and sane policies; and our commitment to being a good nation instead of a priapic obsession with being a Great one.  East Germany relied on secrecy for its strength.  So did Communist Russia.  Do want to use those states as role models?  Is it not obvious that America would be stronger with less secrecy, not with more?

You would think all this would be pretty obvious, and yet the army has now acknowledged that it is blocking access to The Guardian, the paper that has been most aggressively reporting on the NSA's domestic spying operation.  Think about this.  The army has apparently decided that the institution will be stronger if it can keep soldiers ignorant.  "Army Strong" is now "Ignorance is Strength."  Can War is Peace and Freedom is Slavery be far behind?

By the way, the army calls its enforced ignorance campaign "Network Hygiene."  I really thought Disposition Matrix for an assassination program was about as good as it could get, but Network Hygiene is providing some solid competition.

Note to self:  when you have to come up with nomenclature that sounds not just Orwellian, but like a parody of Orwell, to try to justify what you're doing, it's not a good sign.  You might want to take a step back and ask why you're trying so hard to obfuscate.  It's almost like your conscience is trying to tell you something.

It might help restore some perspective if we recognize that other governments are not as secrecy obsessed as ours.  Compared to European countries and many others, American is draconian about punishing leaks.  Are our secrets really so much more valuable?  Do we really rely on secrecy so much more for our strength?  If so, it's not a good sign.

We have to remember that the government wants us to believe that secrecy is a paramount value, that secrecy is a fundamental source of our society's strength, that maintaining it is a vital obligation subject to sacred oaths and requiring that we inform on each other if we suspect someone has deviated.  As I noted above, secrecy does give the government great power -- power over the very citizenry secrecy enfeebles.  It's important that we recognize the self-interest behind the government's "Secrecy is Sacred!" sales job, and not buy into the government's mindset.

What's happened is on a high level pretty simple.  Whether it's more cynical or more clinical, our government has lost its collective mind.  We the people can do an intervention and help restore the government to sanity.  But not if we believe the government's bullshit and share in its delusions.

P.S.  Watch this short and outstanding take from Chris Hayes on how much of a scam secrecy really is.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Smear Artists Think We're Stupid. Are They Right?

The smear campaign against Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald is interesting for at least several reasons.

First, because whatever dirt might exist about a journalist, it's orthogonal to the facts of what he or she uncovers.  Based on the revelations of NSA contractor Edward Snowden, Greenwald has reported on a massive, secret, unconstitutional domestic spying operation with potentially dire ramifications for democracy and freedom in America.  The government has denied none of what Greenwald has reported and has confirmed much of it.  Even if Greenwald were an axe murderer whose favorite hobby were bludgeoning baby seals, it would have nothing to do with the accuracy, relevance, or importance of what he's reported.

(For some pretty hilarious perspective on the nature of the revelations from Darah Gregorian (the person whose name appears on the New York Daily News hit piece), check out the hashtag #ggscandals on Twitter.)

Second, what would be logically relevant is some examination of where Dareh Gregorian got his information.  Who provided the information to Gregorian?  Why?  Was there any quid pro quo?  For anyone inclined to complain that I'm asking for the kind of information about Gregorian that Gregorian is passing on about Greenwald, I'm not.  Admittedly, there would be a form of karmic satisfaction in watching the Gregorians of the world wind up on the wrong end of their own slimy tactics, but learning anything salacious about Gregorian would be no more relevant than it is when we learn it about anyone else.  But when someone puts his name on a logically irrelevant hit piece like Gregorian's, knowing who fed him his dirt and why would be hugely educational for people manipulated by establishment servants posing as journalists.

I have to emphasize that point for the Joy Reids of the world.  What matters is relevance.  As I noted above, Glenn Greenwald could be an axe murderer whose favorite hobby is bludgeoning baby seals -- and it would have zero bearing on the accuracy, relevance, or importance of what he's reported.  But learning that someone like Darah Gregorian is being spoon-fed decade-old dirt (and not even particularly dirty dirt -- again, see #ggscandals) that has no logical relevance at all to the existence and ramifications of a metastasized domestic spying operation would go a long way toward helping consumers of media understand how the powers that be try to manipulate them.

In this regard, it's good to remember that the tactic of smearing whistleblowers and anyone else who challenges America's oligarchy isn't new.  The Nixon administration broke into the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist to try to uncover salacious material about Ellsberg.  And Bank of America, Booz Allen Hamilton, and various other appendages of the ruling class have long been revealed to be engaging in similar, COINTELPRO-like tactics against Greenwald himself.

This matters a lot.  Smear tactics aren't intended only to discredit current whistleblowers and journalists; they are also intended to deter anyone who might consider opposing the establishment in the future.  If we let the tactics work by refusing to recognize them for what they are, we help discourage future whistleblowers, just as the smear artists intend.  That is, "Why should I bother?  The government and its henchmen will smear me, people will talk about nothing but the smear, and I'll wind up suffering for nothing."  The one thing Snowden himself acknowledged fearing (beyond retaliation against his family) was something very much like this:  that in the face of his bombshell revelations about an insidious internal threat to American democracy, Americans wouldn't care.

Third:  Snowden isn't the last whisteblower who will be subjected to a smear campaign, nor Greenwald the last journalist.  In fact, I'll be stunned if the Gregorians of the world haven't already been cued up with more spoon-fed "revelations."  It would be good for the health of our society and the productivity of our discourse if people could recognize these tactics and evaluate them accordingly.

Consider:  despite the logical irrelevance of salacious revelations and other such dirt (real, invented, exaggerated, distorted, whatever) about a reporter to what he or she has reported and that has subsequently been confirmed, the government and its courtiers continue to engage in attempted smears as a way of distracting from and discrediting what's been reported.  If such tactics have no hope of success, then the people who coordinate and engage in them are stupid.  But on the assumption that the people behind these smears aren't stupid, they must have some basis for believing the tactics are sound -- that is, they must have some basis for believing the tactics will work.

Are they right?  It's really up to us.  If you put your personal feelings for or opinions about a journalist ahead of your citizen's concern for what the journalist has revealed, you're being a tool (I'm talking to you, Joy Reid, and to countless others like you).  And I mean "tool" both in its derogatory sense and its more customary dictionary meaning.

Or, to put it another way, either the people behind these smear tactics are stupid… or we are.  Which would you prefer?

Monday, June 24, 2013

Q&A With Philip Patrick, Head of Kindle Worlds

In case you didn't see the press release last week, John Rain is now part of the new Kindle Worlds program! Here's a Q&A I did with Philip Patrick about how it all works and touching on some pretty interesting related topics, too. Hope you find our discussion useful; it certainly was a lot of fun for me...

Barry: Hi Philip, congratulations to you and Amazon on yet another innovative development that’s sure to benefit readers and writers:  Kindle Worlds. I’m thrilled to be part of the program, and I thought it might be useful to anyone interested if you and I could share a few thoughts about how it works and what it’s all about.

To start with, how would you describe the program in a nutshell for anyone unfamiliar with it? I’d call it “licensed and commissioned fan fiction”—would that be accurate?

Philip:  Thanks for taking the time to talk about Kindle Worlds. Part of our mission at Amazon Publishing is to act as a laboratory to develop new ways for writers to be creative, connect to readers, and earn money. We hope that Kindle Worlds is a prime example of what we like to build. It’s a place for writers to create new stories inspired by popular books, shows, films, comics, music, and games. We’ve been calling them Worlds. Until now, selling stories based on somebody else’s World has been a big challenge for most writers. So we’ve worked to acquire licenses from Worlds to make it possible for writers—and yes some of them will be commissioned—to write new stories and earn royalties from every copy sold. We think it’s a win for everyone involved—the World rights holder, the writer, and ultimately the reader.

Barry:  Agreed. Not to get too political (I know, I know... it took me two whole paragraphs), but sometimes I think what the revolution in publishing really comes down to is choice—and whether you’re for or against it. I don’t care how authors choose to publish (Amazon, legacy, self, whatever); I just want them to have options. I don’t care how people read (iPad, Kindle, Nook, paper, whatever); I care that they read, and therefore that they can read in whatever way pleases them. And I don’t care how authors feel about fan fiction (Anne Rice hates it; Hugh Howey loves it); I care that they can license fan fiction if they choose. So naturally, when I first heard about Kindle Worlds, I loved the idea. Authors don’t have to participate; fans don’t have to opt in; free, unlicensed, unmonetized fan fiction can roll along as it always has. But now authors and fan fiction writers who are interested have a great new option for profiting from their Worlds and the fan-created works derived from those worlds.

Philip:  I think you’re spot-on. Giving writers and readers choices is at the heart of what we want to do. Many years ago, I had the good fortune to spend a weekend with the legendary publisher Ian Ballantine at his home outside New York. I remember walking into his house and seeing shelf after shelf of the mass-market paperbacks he’d published throughout his career. He looked at me and said: “It’s all about accessibility.” Fast forward a few decades and that concept of accessibility has only grown—and that is a good thing. Kindle Worlds is another avenue in this ongoing transformation.

Barry:  Yes. Other things being equal, if you make something easier to do, you’ll see an increase in the behavior in question. If you make that thing harder, you’ll see less of it. In fact, I remember reading an interview with Jeff Bezos years ago—way back when most people were still getting on the Internet with a dial-up connection. The interviewer asked Bezos something like, “What do you think is the greatest impediment to the growth of the online book-buying market?” I don’t remember the exact words, but Bezos responded along the lines of, “The amount of time it takes to get a dial-up connection.” I remember thinking, Yes, exactly! Just that one or two minutes of waiting can make all the difference. And there are countless other examples just like this one. Make something marginally easier, and rates of adoption explode. How can that be a bad thing when it comes to reading?

For me, Kindle Worlds is just a new form of subsidiary right. An author writes a manuscript and licenses, say, North American English-language publishing rights. But then there are also foreign language publication rights. No one is forcing an author to authorize, say, the French edition of her book, but if the opportunity is there, it’s nice to have. And if someone wants to option the film rights to the book, that’s great, too. No one is forcing the author to authorize a film; but not many authors would object to someone making them an offer. That’s the way I see Kindle Worlds. Another way authors can exploit the value of their underlying intellectual property rights—if they choose.

So how do interested authors and fan fiction writers learn more about Kindle Worlds and how they can participate?

Philip:  It’s all available at the Kindle Worlds website. There’s a good amount of information there as well as a sign-up for anyone who wants to be notified when the self-service submission portal goes live.

Barry:  Okay, I checked out the Kindle Worlds For Authors page, and I noticed that among your content guidelines you say you don’t accept pornography or offensive depictions of graphic sexual acts. Now, obviously there’s a lot of subjectivity at work here, though Woody Allen might have offered some helpful guidelines when he suggested, “Erotica is using a feather; pornography is using the whole chicken.”

But seriously, how do you draw a line? For example, there’s an explicit lesbian scene in my recent novella London Twist that some Amazon reviewers found shocking and offensive, and a pretty graphic scene in Redemption Games that some people have characterized (mischaracterized, in my opinion) as rape. Plus my friend Montie told me that one of my love scenes cost him thousands of dollars in therapy (though in fairness that’s because he was horrified to realize, as he put it, “My God, I have become sexually stimulated by the imagination of Barry Eisler.” I’ve really always wanted to use that as a blurb).

Anyway, how can participants in the program know what’s going to offend what I’m sure will become known as the Amazon Censors? And why did you decide to include a provision that you must have known so many people, not least erotica writers, will find troublesome?  Are you not worried that, in the service of preventing offense, you might in fact be causing it?

Philip:  In general, our strong bias is to give writers as much creative freedom as is appropriate to each World. The people who understand  that appropriateness best are the original rights holders—we’re calling them World Licensors—who will know what their audience expects and wants and how far the bounds can be pushed. There are shows, for instance, where mature content is part of the storytelling. And there are other shows where that isn’t the case. That makes sense to me on a lot of levels. So we’re asking each World Licensor to outline what is appropriate for their World’s audience in Content Guidelines. We’ll review submissions to see if they are within those guidelines. Our message to writers is pretty straightforward—follow any World’s guidelines and we will publish your story. And if something falls into a gray area, there’s always room for dialogue. We’ll talk to World Licensors as we review stories and we also will communicate back and forth with a writer if we have any questions.

Barry:  I get that each World Licensor can include his or her own guidelines, and I think that’s a great idea. It makes the program more attractive to potential World Licensors because they know they can customize fan fiction based on their Worlds in whatever way they want. Of course, if they customize too rigorously, there’s a chance they’ll be dissuading fan fiction writers who would otherwise want to participate, but that’s a decision each potential World Licensor can make for herself.  I have only very loose guidelines—pretty much just no titles the same as or misleadingly similar to the ones I use for my underlying works. Other than that, I’m happy to let fan fiction writers do whatever they like. Partly because I’m just pretty laissez faire about these things; partly because I don’t want to discourage people with too many restrictions.

But that’s all about the individual World guidelines, which are always up to the World Licensor. Again, I think that’s a great approach and a critical aspect of the program. But why not leave it at that? Why have, alongside those individual guidelines, program-wide guidelines of your own? It’s the latter class that will probably cause the most concern (is this love scene going to “offend” whoever at Amazon is reviewing with an eye toward the program-wide content guidelines?) and that I expect is going to cause some pushback.

Philip:  Looking across the entire program, it’s important to have some basic guidelines in certain areas. One of the guidelines, for instance, is about originality. The work submitted has to actually belong to the writer and can’t be copied from another source. As for the mature content it really does depend on the World. If slash fic is okay with the World it is okay with us. We want people to be creative and work within what the World Licensors tells us is appropriate for their World.

Barry:  When it comes to guidelines, what it comes down to for me is brand, and what a company wants its brand to stand for. I wouldn’t expect a publisher to surrender its ability to manage its brand any more than I’d expect an author to do so. (Personally, I’d love to see a kind of imprint for edgier stuff. You could even market it as Adult, Over-18, or otherwise as material so potentially offensive that it needs to come with a warning. Nothing like a “warning” to propel sales... “The book the CIA tried to ban!”)

What’s curious about the pushback I think you’re likely to receive is that establishment publishers aren’t held to the same standard. For example, I don’t think anyone has ever complained that a publisher exclusively catering to dry literary fiction refuses to publish erotica—at least, I don’t remember ever hearing someone claim that “Hey, that publisher is censoring erotica writers!” (or that Disney is censoring splatter movies, etc). One of the many things that interests me about the revolution in publishing is the way longstanding phenomena are often treated as both startlingly new and uniquely dangerous when these phenomena manifest themselves in digital. “But discovery is so hard!” “But you’ll have to market yourself!” etc. I could go on about this; for now, suffice to say that for some reason, a new context can make ancient challenges seem fresh and newly born.

I think the principled challenge to what I just said would be something like, “But Barry, that literary imprint is just one among many, and there are many erotica imprints that publish authors who write erotica and who therefore provide a means for erotic writers to reach readers. Kindle Worlds is different—it’s not just a kind of publisher, but also a platform, and the only platform of its kind. As such, it should be as inclusive as possible.”

I think that’s a fair point and I hope you guys will be flexible in your implementation of your guidelines. Remember, if it doesn’t offend at least twenty percent of people, it isn’t great art. :)

Okay, another question: how do the rights to new content work? In other words, what if a World writer invents a new character... can other writers who are writing in that World use that character? Can the World Licensor?

Philip Patrick: That’s a great and important question. Kindle Worlds is a creative community that includes the Kindle Worlds writers and the World Licensor. Every story you publish adds to a World and becomes part of that World. This means Kindle Worlds authors can build on each other’s stories. It also means that the World Licensor can build on or incorporate elements from those stories. My mental image is a sandbox: everyone is welcome to come in and be creative, but whatever is made stays there for the next writer and for the World Licensor. Our publishing agreement is an exclusive license to the story and its original elements for the term of copyright. Because of this, we recommend writers do not incorporate a character or new element into a Kindle Worlds story unless they want them an exclusive part of that World. If a writer wants to be creative with original ideas but not have their work under this kind of license, Amazon supports them fully and has great options with much more flexibility and control at Kindle Direct Publishing and CreateSpace. Again this is all about creating new models and options for writers. The writers we have been working with so far have found it great fun and a new creative challenge to write in somebody else’s World.

Barry:  I think this approach will be part of the key to the success of the program. Whatever you want to call it—a sandbox, a pool, a cookpot—the idea is that new writers will grow a World, and the more a World grows, the more there will be for new writers to do with it. The skew is in favor of inclusiveness rather than restrictions.

Philip:  Hey, I was thrilled to include John Rain--Valiant Entertainment, Blake Crouch, Hugh Howey, and Neal Stephenson--in our recent announcement about new licenses for Kindle Worlds. Thanks for being with us. Is there anything you’d like to share with your readers about John Rain?

Barry:  Ah, thanks for that. Well, as I mention above, I don’t have any particular guidelines, so if anyone out there feels compelled to write Rain/Dox slash or whatever, it doesn’t bother me.

Which actually brings up a point I think is worth emphasizing. Different writers feel differently (and sometimes very strongly) about these things, and I don’t think there’s any right or wrong answer for what at root is based on a feeling. Am I comfortable with other people writing stories set in my Worlds? Offering their own interpretations of my characters, their own insights, their own flavor? Or am I not?

I’m really only concerned about one thing: that readers know if I wrote it, or if someone else did. As long as there’s no confusion in that regard, I’m comfortable trusting readers to find whatever makes them happy, and to pass on anything that doesn’t. Again, for me this isn’t so different from authorizing a French edition, or a movie, or any other derivative work. I don’t speak French, so I can’t opine about the quality of a translation. And I’m not making the movie, so I can’t do much to influence the quality of whatever gets made. And as long as people know I didn’t write the book in French, or write and direct the movie, I’m okay with these kinds of derivative projects. They’re based on, or inspired by, my works, but they’re not my works themselves.

I’m not saying all that as a logical point—again, I think it comes down to how you feel. If you feel like seeing a movie that for you doesn’t do justice to your underlying works would be unduly upsetting, then you’ll be inhibited from licensing the movie rights. If you feel like, “Hey, it wasn’t my movie anyway,” then you won’t have a problem talking to Hollywood.

As I said earlier: for me, it really comes down to choice, and to the notion, which except at the margins I find axiomatic, that more choice is good. However various authors decide to approach Kindle Worlds, there’s still always going to be fan fiction. It’s just that now, rights holders and fan fiction writers have a way of making money from it—if they want to.

Philip: I couldn’t agree with you more. The world has gotten more creative. Whether it’s a laptop or mp3 recorder or digital camera, people have the tools to respond to what they see, feel, hear, taste, and read. And they have platforms to share those responses with others. Maybe just family and friends. Maybe millions of people across the planet. The work we’re doing at Kindle Worlds is just a sliver of that possibility—to respond and share. It isn’t necessarily perfect for every rights holder or every writer out there. And that’s okay. But for the ones who gravitate toward it, it has the ability to expand a World one story at a time—and that just seems like a win for everyone involved.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Of Course We Can Trust Them. They're The Government

One of the things I find most fascinating about whistleblower Edward Snowden's NSA revelations is the way so many Americans reflexively defend the very government that has been caught illegally, unconstitutionally spying on them.  Doubtless, some of the defensiveness is produced more by partisan identification with Obama than by identification with the government generally (can you imagine how much differently the Democratic leadership and rank and file would be reacting had Snowden blown the whistle under a Republican president?).  But I also sense that a good deal of the defensiveness comes from a reflexive identification with the government generally.  As Digby has repeatedly observed, many Americans would rather be subjects than citizens.

What's so revealing about the hostile reactions to Snowden's revelations is the way many people try to articulate a principle to justify their hostility, but then immediately selectively apply it.  For example, has even one of the people crying out some version of "Snowden broke the law, he should be punished!" ever made the same argument about Director of National Intelligence James Clapper for lying to Congress?  How can people be concerned about the consequences to our safety and freedom of a contractor leaking secrets about a massive domestic spying operation, but sanguine about the head of America's entire intelligence apparatus perjuring himself in denying such a program exists?

Let's talk about Clapper for a moment.  The fact that Congress is so in thrall to the intelligence industrial complex that it can't muster the balls even to *complain* about being lied to by an intelligence bureaucrat tells us a lot about the current fragile state of our democracy.  And in the face of this, many Americans are more upset that someone has revealed the NSA is spying on them than they are about the spying.  That's not good.

And it gets worse.  Have you read about Obama's Insider Threat Program?  The Most Transparent Administration Ever has figured out that the best way to foster greater transparency is to "Hammer this fact home… leaking is tantamount to aiding the enemies of the United States;" to get coworkers to inform on each other; and to gin up suspicion of anyone who's going through a divorce, facing financial problems, or even just under stress.  It sounds like a pretty good idea… in fact, wait, I think it's been tried before!

And worse still.  The Obama Justice Department has now charged Snowden with espionage.  However you want to characterize what Snowden did -- whistleblowing, leaking, whatever -- what he did was selectively provide secret information to the press (The Guardian and The Washington Post).  He had much more information he could have turned over but didn't because he thought the harm of releasing that additional information would outweigh the good.  And he asked the Guardian and the Post to also take care to edit the information he provided so as to minimize any potential harm.  What he did *not* do was secretly sell the information to which he had access to a foreign government.  He could have made millions had he chosen to do so.  Instead, he provided the information openly to the American people.  You can call his actions various different things, but you can't coherently call them "espionage."  Not unless you're Humpty Dumpty, and words mean whatever you want them to mean.

On the other hand, we do call it the "Justice" Department -- a name that becomes more akin to Ministry of Love by the day.  So maybe the government *can* just make words mean whatever it wants them to mean.  Obama claims to be running The Most Transparent Administration Ever, after all, even as he prosecutes his eighth whistleblower for espionage -- compared to a grand total of three people charged under the Espionage Act under all previous administrations combined (including those of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush, naturally).

Look, so far as I know, no one is claiming Snowden didn't violate a contractual and legal obligation to preserve secrecy (though the rhetoric about his violating some secrecy "oath" is propagandistic bullshit suggestive of a weirdly authoritarian mentality).  But what kind of person -- what kind of citizen -- thinks Snowden's NDA violation is more important, more consequential, more deserving of discussion and debate than the fact that the government has constructed a massive, unaccountable, domestic spying operation totally in secret?  Or that the head of America's intelligence apparatus was just caught lying to Congress about the existence of this program?  Which is the greater potential threat to democracy -- one guy leaking secrets to the press (given the self-glorifying ongoing flood of such leaks coming from the Obama administration, you better hope that's the wrong answer)?  Or a massive intelligence organization spying on the American people, and the head of that organization lying to Congress about it?

The answer is obvious.  And if in spite of that obvious answer, you find yourself more exercised about Snowden than about the NSA and Clapper, I respectfully submit that you have a bit of soul-searching to do.

Fortunately, the establishment media has all the right priorities.  Here's courageous truth-seeker David Gregory of Meet the Press, suggesting that The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald, who along with The Washington Post's Bart Gellman broke the NSA story, should be prosecuted for aiding and abetting the enemy.  If you can find a more docile, subservient, bootlicking, Stockholm Syndrome level of pseudo-journalistic cravenness than Gregory's, please let me know.

And for the "I don't care of anyone is reading my mail or listening to my calls or compiling my metadata, I have nothing to hide" people out there, I want you to consider this:

The patterns the NSA is searching for as it scours domestic communications aren't patterns exclusive to terrorism.  They are patterns of clandestine behavior (in particular, we now know the NSA is heavily focussed on encrypted email).  Some such clandestine behavior might involve terrorism.  Some will involve other types of crime.  A lot of it will involve communications between, say, lawyers and clients.  And most of it, probably nearly all, will involve things that are embarrassing or illicit, such as closeted homosexuality, sexual affairs, and other personal matters people would prefer to keep private.

I wonder what a massive intelligence organization might do with information it uncovered about embarrassing or illegal activities on the part of politicians, journalists, and other powerful and influential people.  It's enough to make you wonder why Congress is acting so blasé about Clapper's baldfaced lie.

Nah, that's crazy talk.  It could never happen here.

But just in case it could happen here… just in case an operation like PRISM, even if you don't think it's being misused today, might provide a turnkey program for totalitarian control tomorrow... isn't it important that we as citizens have the opportunity and means to discuss it openly and intelligently?  And can you come up with some other realistic opportunity and means beyond the actions of Edward Snowden and the rare people like him?

Put all these things together.  The president is prosecuting all non-Obama-glorifying leaks as espionage.  Congress is so captured and craven it shrugs when intelligence bureaucrats lie to it under oath about the scope of domestic spying operations.  The establishment media so identifies with the government that it wants journalists prosecuted for doing core First Amendment journalism.

Oh, and the NSA is spying on us, and what's been revealed of that spying so far is probably just a fraction of the reality.

If you find any of this, let alone all, acceptable, you have more faith in the inherent resiliency of American democracy than I do.  But if Congress is craven, and the establishment media is complicit, and even average citizens are eager to let the government do whatever it wants as long as it claims It's For Your Own Safety and/or as long as someone from the citizen's favored wing of the war party occupies the Oval Office, who is left to guard the guardians?

Or maybe we can just let the NSA guard itself.  They're the government, after all.  I'm sure they mean well.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Michael Hastings, A Sad And Terrible Loss

Incredibly sad news. Rolling Stone and BuzzFeed journalist Michael Hastings, only 33, died in a car accident in Los Angeles yesterday.  Michael was funny, fearless, and acerbic to anyone sucking up to power -- a model for what a real journalist should be.  This exchange, from his Buzz Feed obituary, sums up a lot of what he was about:  "'Why do you bother to ask questions you've already decided you know the answers to?' [Hillary Clinton aide Philippe] Reines asked.  'Why don't you give answers that aren't bullshit for a change?' Hastings replied."  When his editor warned him this exchange would make him look like an asshole, Michael responded, "Everyone knows I’m an asshole. The point is that they’re assholes."

One of the best things about being a writer is that every now and then, you learn someone you admire from afar is a fan of your books.  This was the case with Michael.  Another terrific journalist -- Barrett Brown, now being persecuted by the US government -- knew of our mutual admiration and put us in touch.  After that introduction, Michael and I exchanged maybe a half dozen emails and had as many phone conversations.  I feel fortunate to have known him, however slightly.  Professionally, he was fierce and focused.  In person, he was thoughtful, generous, and hilarious.  He had a keen nose for and visceral hatred of bullshit, so as you can imagine we bonded over several conversations about the publishing industry.  I loved his book "The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan."  When I told him there were passages as good as James Ellroy, he laughed and told me he had been reading Ellroy while writing it.  Occupational hazard.

Michael was best known for his Rolling Stone article The Runaway General, which led to the resignation for insubordination of Afghan War commander Stanley McChrystal.  The Operators is, among other things, the story behind that story, detailing the angst Michael felt about reporting something so momentous about a group of people he admired and who had treated him seductively well.  He was attacked afterward by numerous "journalists" for whom integrity and courage like Michael's are threatening and incomprehensible.  Nothing makes a sell-out more uncomfortable than to be faced with someone who refuses to be bought.

I hate to think of what was ahead for this fine person, the professional and the personal, and that will now never be.  His death is a loss to journalism and to everyone who loves truth.  I didn't realize how good it was to know Michael was out there in the world, doing great work, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.  I woke up sad this morning, feeling the world is not as good a place today as it was yesterday.  I'll miss him.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Intel Is Not Used To Shape Policy, But To Justify It

The primary purpose of intelligence -- accurate or distorted, real or fake -- isn't to shape policy.  It is to *justify* policy.  The way politicians use intelligence -- what they leak, what they suppress, what they demand collected and how they insist it be understood -- is almost entirely driven by their desire to justify policies upon which they have already decided.  Remember that, as we increasingly intervene in Syria.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Memo To Authoritarians: The "Oath" is to the Constitution, Not to Secrecy

It's been interesting to read pundits like David Brooks of the New York Times and Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo prattling about how whistleblower Edward Snowden violated his "oath" of secrecy.  I was in the CIA, and I can tell you there was no secrecy "oath," just a contract.  The oath was to protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

I find the misnomer revealing.  I don't think Brooks, Marshall, and the many others like them are misusing the word "oath" in a deliberate attempt to mislead.  My guess instead is that their deference to government secrecy is so strong that they reflexively equate a contract to maintain secrecy -- a nondisclosure agreement, really -- with something as strong as, say, a sworn oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.  You know, like one the president takes.

In fact, I'd go further.  That these pundits aren't even discussing the real oath CIA and other government employees take -- the one to protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic -- suggests they don't believe such oaths are important enough to bother mentioning.  Now, admittedly oaths to protect and defend the Constitution are all very pre-9/11, but shouldn't an intelligent and honest pundit at least offer a nod of the head toward the fact that someone like Edward Snowden might have felt faced with two competing obligations -- his secrecy contract, on the one hand, and his sworn oath to protect and defend the Constitution, on the other?

Of course, if deference to governmental secrecy prerogatives trumps all other values, then there's no trade-off even to mention.

And look, even if you think that "oath" and "contract" are interchangeable terms (in which case you'd have to explain why Brooks, Marshall et al consistently use the former regarding secrecy while eschewing the latter, and why the drafters of the Constitution did the same with regard to oaths of office), you still have to explain why various pundits are so intent on referring to only one of the "oaths" while ignoring the other.

Here's another way of looking at it.  Say you're the employee of an intelligence agency.  You've signed a contract to maintain secrecy and also sworn an oath to protect and defend the Constitution.  And you become aware of a secret program that you believe violates the Constitution you have sworn to protect and defend.  Reasonable people can argue about how you might best redress that violation, but reasonable people can't deny, whether explicitly or implicitly, that you are faced with a dilemma and that, if you have a conscience, you should and hopefully will grapple with how to resolve it.

Here's a terrific piece from Daniel Ellsberg, the previous generation's heroic whistleblower, on why in revealing the scale of the NSA's secret spying on millions of innocent Americans, Snowden has done America such a noble service.

Maybe you'll disagree.  That's fine; there are competing interests in all cases of whistle blowing, and reasonable people might balance those interests in different ways.  But arguing as though a contractual obligation to maintain secrecy trumps all other values, including actual sworn oaths to protect and defend the Constitution, just makes you look like an authoritarian.  As well as a fool.